Thanks to Screenwriting U Magazine for the first run of this post.
Perhaps you’ve been tinkering with the same screenplay for years, or perhaps you just know your story needs some serious rehab. Either way, there’s a huge difference between standing up for your story and clinging to a story that simply doesn’t work.
For writers who are ready to try some radical revision, these are a few trade-tested ideas to get the plot moving again.
No. 1 — Start in the middle.
There’s a time-honored tradition in journalist circles where the copy editor lops off the first two paragraphs of an article. The general idea is that the first two paragraphs are typically filled with flowery, tone-setting nonsense and don’t address to the 5 Ws the reader is looking for. The same can be said for many screenplays.
Even if your exposition is the leanest of the lean, it’s possible your story starts in the wrong place. Imagine what the story would look like if it began 30 or 40 pages in instead of at its current slug. It’s possible to re-energize the story by simply moving it down the road a piece.
No. 2 — Choose a new protagonist.
By now you’ve heard the tale of Jennifer Lee’s Frozen script: Elsa began her life on the page in the classic villain archetype. Elsa’s character shift from evil queen to misunderstood hero required an entire overhaul of the story, for the better.
I’m sure you’ve walked out of a movie once or twice wondering about the life of a character that didn’t receive enough screen time. Who is that character in your story? Is it possible your current protagonist is actually meant to be a supporting player? Here’s a test: If anyone has told you they “don’t get” or “don’t care” about your protagonist’s motives or arc, you might be focusing on the wrong hero.
No. 3 — Change the genre.
What label have you given your story’s genre? Action-thriller? Rom-com? Docu-drama? Whatever it is, have you thought about a different one? I’ve read many scripts that didn’t know what genre they were; some tried too hard to be funny in the serious moments and some tried too hard to be serious when the stakes were not.
It’s fine – important, even – to write the first several drafts without much mind to genre. But once the bones are down, it’s essential to 1) choose appropriately and 2) be consistent.
No. 4 — World-build.
When I was a kid, Star Trek conventions were a target of ridicule. Now? There’s a Con for everything, you know. Even if you don’t foresee your script spawning a cottage industry, it’s a good exercise to think about how plot points, characters and set pieces live off the page. (Harvard has a Quidditch team. I paid to see them play.)
Go back to the areas of your script that make world-building possible and flesh them out, if necessary. Ending a spec with “And so it begins…” does not a trilogy make. Vivid settings, symbolic journeys, endearing/heroic/aspirational characters are all essential to creating a world audiences want to bring home with them.
No. 5 –Change the medium.
This last tip could be the most or the least radical, depending on how married to your medium you are. Several years ago, I read a spec so well written and so prescient, I encouraged the writer to revise the feature as an hourlong drama spec, with six episode ideas.
The writer politely demurred, as he couldn’t really see his story outside of the feature format. All these years later, that spec is still a standout among all I have read, though I know it never sold, and I suspect the story’s time has passed.
Sure, features are adapted to novels are adapted to series are adapted to Broadway musicals are adapted to comic books every day. But you are writing the origin story. Who is your audience?
Are they as likely — or more – to find your story online? On a bookshelf? On their handhelds? Shakespeare shows us that a great story can be told through any number of media and still pack the same punch. Turn your script on its head and shake it around; there are more media out there to facilitate than when you started writing it.